“Let not man glory in this that he loveth his country, let him rather glory in this that he loveth his kind.”[i]
A little over ninety years ago, in the fall of 1929, the U.S stock market crashed. The world at the time was far less interconnected than it is now, but ties of mutual dependence were already so tight that, like a string of pearls sliding down a drain, once one country went over the edge, the rest were doomed to follow. Over the next ten years, the nations of the world tried every remedy they could think of—raising tariffs on imported goods, creating welfare states, nationalizing industries, putting fascist dictators into power. None of it helped. The Great Depression lingered on. Why? Because the Great Depression was a global crisis—perhaps the first in human history—and the solutions put forward were, one and all, national solutions.
Ninety years later, we are failing for the same reason. Around the world, each country is striving to care for its own citizens, to make certain its own doctors have the supplies they need, to shore up its own economy, but like the Great Depression, COVID-19 is a global problem. It won’t be over till it’s over everywhere. None of us are safe unless all of us are safe. Viruses do not obey immigration laws, and the most tightly sealed borders are porous to them. Even more than in the 1930s, not merely our prosperity, but even our very survival is dependent on a web of connections that tie us to every country on the planet. No country can survive on its own, and therefore, no country can, in the long run, stop the virus from breaching its borders.
The coronavirus crisis can only be solved by coordinated global action rooted in the recognition that we are one human family sharing one common planet. Given the ease with which this virus spreads, a single cluster of cases could reinfect the whole world. Today, the fate of one is literally the fate of all. We must come together as a world in a way we have never yet accomplished. We have the scientific and technological capacity to control the pandemic. The true crisis we are facing is our lack of the capacity to love all of humankind.
What would it mean to love all humans right now? It would mean that we stop blaming one another, stop scrabbling to claim everything we can for ourselves, and instead work together to see that the limited resources of our world are distributed in a rational and just way. It would mean that those of us who have more would willingly give up some of our security and comfort so that those who have little or nothing do not bear a burden that we refused to carry. This is our moral duty, but it also plain good sense. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote fifty-seven years ago this month: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We ignore the suffering of our sisters and brothers to our own peril, and we will only be allowed to ignore them for so long.
COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines in our communities, both globally and locally. The wealthier countries are monopolizing the resources needed by everyone. So far, the pandemic has been centered in the relatively affluent global north, but if, as seems likely, its spread intensifies in the global south—where many countries lack even the basic resources needed to manage the illness—the foolishness of this strategy will be only too apparent. Within individual countries, the situation is no different. In the U.S., African Americans and Hispanics are suffering disproportionately large numbers of cases and fatalities. In Singapore, the recent surge in cases is almost completely confined to the tightly packed dormitories where foreign laborers live. All over the world, the virus is adding yet another sorrow to the lives of the poor and refugees. When people must live in cramped and crowded conditions, when water supplies and toilets must be shared by many, when grocery stores are few and the lines to get into them long, social distancing is impossible, and controlling the spread of COVID-19 nearly impossible as well. When hospitals are far away, when they lack basic medical equipment, when even their supply of electricity is unreliable, how can doctors help the sick and protect the healthy? The current situation in New York City, in Singapore, and in Europe reveals the very real danger of social and economic inequality. By allowing the continued existence of second-class citizens and second-class countries, we have given the virus ideal bases from which to strike at us over and over. Only by acting to remedy the rampant inequalities of our world can we resolve this crisis and prevent similar crises from arising in the future.
We must take the opportunity provided by COVID-19, by the x-ray it has shined through our communities and the will to action it has stirred within them. We must embrace the truth that we are all fellow citizens of this Earth. The virus doesn’t care where a person comes from, what language they speak, or what color their skin happens to be. Why should we? The time has come to rethink the foundations of our global society and economy, to establish a just and unified world. It is a tall order, but the first step is as obvious as it is imperative: to work together as one world to bring COVID-19 under control. We have the ability to do so. All that is holding us back are the limitations of our own hearts.
[i] Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing, 1988), 127-128), https://www.bahai.org/library/authortative-texts/bahaullah/tablets-bahaullah/4#370513225